Warning: Anodyne contains content and themes that may be distressing to certain audiences. Player discretion is advised.
I was discussing the fact that I was playing this game with some family members during this review process, and I was asked to describe the game. A rather natural question, really. But I found that I could not answer it so succinctly. It plays mostly like it’s trying to be a clone of early Legend of Zelda titles. But there are areas with ambience and atmosphere that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in Silent Hill. I don’t mean that in the sense of a generic horror game. I mean Silent Hill.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been so flummoxed by a game while I was playing it. I always felt like the game itself was some strange enigma. Something like an eldritch horror, large and unfathomable, and I could see only a fraction of it.
Also your weapon is a broom.
Travel Across The Land
Combat is an unfortunately weak aspect of the game, especially given how much Anodyne wears its Zelda inspiration on its sleeve. Young attacks with the broom in a stabbing motion. The problem is that many enemies attack in ways that means lining yourself up for a stab will almost inevitably result in taking damage. Not to mention the lack of knockback or stunning on your hits. When you hit an enemy, they get a few seconds of mercy invincibility, but aren’t in any way prevented from hitting you during this time. And since, again, you are smacking them with a broom, odds are good you are within rang of their attacks while they’re invincible.
There are enemies with much better range than you, enemies that swing their weapons, and those frogs are the absolute worst. They shoot three projectiles that move in a small arc, but each projectile has its own arc, and they’re all hard to read. And it has better range than you, because obviously. Not to mention the dog and the lion, both of which move fast and erratically, and the lion also breathes fire because why wouldn’t it?
You gain the ability to jump fairly early on in the game. The main use of jumping is to clear small gaps or to stamp on buttons. However, the jumping in Anodyne is some of the fiddliest I’ve ever seen. You make very little distance, so there are many times when you have to be near pixel-perfect with your jumps to stand a chance of crossing the gap. Certain obstacles sometimes require you to jump over them, and many of them are designed in such a way that you have to race that obstacle through a room or restart the entire room from the beginning. And late in the game, they introduce booster that speed you up. Since the game is built on a tile grid, there are no diagonal booster pads. This does not stop them from having diagonal jumps. Namely, by combining ‘left’ boosters and ‘down’ booster. So you have to do some fiddly maneuvering to build up speed, then jump at the last minute while sped up throwing off your usual timing. If it wasn’t for that fact that falling doesn’t actually cause you to lose health, I’d have written the game off right then and there.
A video game protagonist wakes up in an on-fire science lab with nothing but an AI and a high-tech gun to…
Some of the puzzles don’t have the most intuitive of solutions, but at the very least I usually figured out what the game wanted me to do on my own. Dust is the biggest offender for this. Your broom is not only your best and only weapon. No, it can also pick up dust lying around the world and put it somewhere else. But not too many other places. You lose any dust the moment you move screens, and you can only store one dust at a time. While this may seem simple, it runs into problems because dust’s properties are not readily apparent. It blocks some projectiles, usually from environmental hazards. But you and enemies can walk right over it. You also use it as a raft (you cannot swim). This is the only way you can transport dust from one screen to another. And then there’s what it does during the final boss fight.
Progress in Anodyne is measured by your collection of Cards. These Cards depict characters and enemies from throughout the game. You can check them at any times, and they’ll say something as though they are the depicted character. Sometimes this can be a hint as to how they work and what you need to do to deal with them. These Cards are acquired from treasure chests scattered throughout the world. There are also gates you need a certain number of Cards to open. Finding Cards can be difficult, but the game signposts them fairly well. If you go to the Nexus, a hub world that lets you fast travel to places you’ve been, you can see if you have all the Cards in a given location. You can also ask your friend Mitra, and she’ll give you a hint of where you need to go next.
The Map is useful, but it could definitely be more readable. It marks a screen once you enter it, and what directions it connects to other screens. The real problems come from the more maze-like areas, or when a dungeon has multiple floors. Because it does not mark when a direction is blocked off, like when there is a wall separating the bottom left corner of a room, so trying to pass through that way is simply impossible. It also marks when a room has a door to another area or floor, but not which floor it connects to. You either need to memorize the dungeon layout or make your own, more useful map.
You Must Overcome Your Fears
Anodyne’s story is very cliché, in an undeniably deliberate way. You play as a young man named, ah, Young. The game opens with a strange and surreal tutorial. Sets the mood for the whole game, really. After this, you enter Nexus and meet Sage, the Village Elder (who is neither). He informs you that The Darkness has spread across The Land and you are the Chosen One of the legend and you must stop The Darkness from reaching The Briar at all costs. This simple setup paves the way for all of the strange, terrible, and wonderous thing to follow. Because it quickly becomes clear that if The Darkness has spread across The Land, it sure isn’t doing much. Mitra, the first person you encounter, hasn’t even heard of it.
Several characters know your name without being introduced. There are two talking cats, one of whom has been captured by a fishman who left out a cardboard box. Surreal and whimsical stuff just happens is what I’m saying. There also aren’t very man actual settlements either. There’s basically one village, and it’s definitely not somewhere you would want to spend any amount of time.
The whole world feels strange and dreamlike. Areas don’t line up in any way that make logical sense. Once you make an area transition, there is no way of knowing or guessing what the next zone is going to be. I climbed a mountain into a weird other dimension filled with people talking via holograms. I climbed even higher and reached the roof of a hotel in a cityscape. Logic has no place in the world of Anodyne.
Exploration is by far one of the game’s strongest points. Fully exploring each area and seeing what it has to offer is exciting, not just because you can get Cards but because of the strong visual identity of every area. I had not expected to be able to see off into the distance from the mountain peaks, watching the clouds hang lazily in the sky, but I sure was happy when I found it. The map features a number of dead-ends that sere no gameplay purpose, but look nice. Since your map tracks dead-ends for you, you also don’t have to worry about accidentally backtracking into these dead-ends either.
The post-game also offers a number of secrets using a mechanic introduced for a puzzle very late into the main game.
Anodyne has a very deliberately retro aesthetic. It even goes all the way and has black borders around the edge of the screen so you have a perfectly square game view. It uses simple, chibi-style character sprites. But the color palette is quite nice, and the environments are very pretty. When they aren’t horrifying, of course. The game world is very open for exploration, and there are many different parts of The Land to explore. And each area is visually distinct and pleasant to look at.
See, Anodyne has this interesting design behind it. A sort of surrealist theme being explore. There’s something very subtly off a lot of the time. The Nexus’ dark stone aesthetic makes it an odd place to start the game. The way that the Sage just seems to already be waiting for you in certain places, including right beyond boss fights. That ghost I saw in the first few minutes while I was walking under an abandoned highway and never saw again. How you get health upgrades when a bug burrows into the HUD.
And sometimes that sense of ‘off’ takes a fast and hard swerve straight into ‘something is very wrong.’ Like, for example, one of the early areas being accessed by murdering a fisherman so you can access a dimension made of flesh and blood, where rocks recite poetry about the horrors of being born and the boss screamed about how they never asked for this life. I’d like to honestly say that was the most disturbing thing I encountered in the game.
But Anodyne also has a lot of really funny moments in it. The rocks have a habit of snarking about recent events or nearby objects and people. Basically every time Mitra shows up on screen, actually.
In many ways, the humor and atmosphere of most of the world serves as a stark contrast for when Anodyne seeps the floor out from under you with its more horror-like inclinations.
Anodyne also has an excellent soundtrack. Different areas have their own themes, and I found myself enjoying every song in the game. Different songs have their own instrument choices and they all fit with their area to create a strong atmosphere. The main overworld theme is a personal favorite of mine.
Anodyne is a bit on the older side for an indie game, but it still holds up fairly well. I’m intrigued by the fact that this game has a sequel. Not because I can’t imagine what they would make a sequel about, but because this experience was so surreal you could tell me just about any game was Anodyne 2 and I would probably believe you.
It’s definitely not a game for everyone. But if you’re willing to overlook some of the gameplay flaws and can stomach the heavier content, you’re probably going to have a good couple of hours with this game.